How To Use To-Do Lists Without Being Sad/Miserable/Crazy

The To Do List is one of the most tried and true stalwarts of personal productivity.

And if poorly implemented, it also has the potential to be the most emotionally destructive.

If used well, To Do Lists free up your brain and massively reduce stress while improving results. As David Allen, author of the time management classic Getting Things Done says, “Brains are for having ideas. Not remembering them.”

Please take a moment and let the meaning of that statement sink in.

Allen’s approach to time management and “information capture” came out of his years of studying Zen Buddhism. When you have unfinished tasks that haven’t been “captured,” your brain will keep circling back around to it. It’s an “open loop.”

The main function of a To Do List is to get stuff out of your head and into an “external brain” you trust.

This last part is important. If you don’t trust the system to truly capture the item you need to take action on, you won’t close the loop. Most people don’t have a system they trust. They may have random lists of things to remember or tasks to accomplish, but it’s not put together in a system. Because people know they’re system isn’t effective, they rightfully don’t trust their system.

This means the To Do List doesn’t bring relief. It brings tyranny.

A Simple To Do List System

I’m going to offer you a simple stress free way to capture information in a To-Do List that you can learn to trust. You may decide to go another route with your To-Do List system. But I recommend at least considering this one.

I have to warn you… it’s going to be anticlimactic as hell.

Ready?

Get an empty physical, lined notebook.

On the top of the paper, write the day of the week at the top. Then make sure you have two or so weeks of days written out in advance. Each day gets it’s on page.

Capture (or assign) your To-Do List items by writing them down on the day that you plan to do them.

Then the night before, reference your calendar for the next day and create a schedule of what you’re going to do when.

This is important. This allows your To Do List to exist in time.

For longer tasks that require 15 minutes or more (working on a presentation, writing a blog post, writing a course on personal productivity), assign a time and duration.

For shorter tasks that take less than five minutes and require less brain force (following up with someone via email, paying a bill, sending a text message), “batch” them together in a designated time (and duration) during the day. Low brain force tasks are best done later in the day when you’re less mentally fresh.

If your schedule has changed and you don’t have time that day to complete all the scheduled tasks, reschedule as needed. Decide what to move based on importance and urgency, doing your best to balance time-sensitive tasks against the high-value important tasks. And of course, alert anyone waiting on you for something with an updated expectation.

That’s it!

Simple, but brutally effective.

Meeting Lists/ On-Going Projects/ Someday Lists

If the To Do List is your primary information capture and execution system, here are a few other lists you can curate to help keep all important information written down, organized, and “out of your brain.”

Once again, personal preference should play into how you set this up, but unlike the list of one-off tasks captured in the notebook, I suggest using three digital documents to capture other kinds of information. You can use a simple text document on your computer, or go fancier and keep it in the cloud (and easily accessible) via software like Google Docs or Evernote.

Since these lists are ongoing and never totally “finished” they’re not really “To-Do Lists” by my definition. Remember, To-Do Lists are a list of discrete action steps and tasks that can get finished and crossed off.

You can reference these lists to create To-Do List items, but the lists themselves are a bit more conducive to digital files. Not only will they never be “done,” but they’ll often benefit from periodic reorganization by subject or priority, a task better accomplished on a computer, tablet, or smartphone. You may also need to “share” some of these lists with co-workers, which can be done best when the document is cloud-based.

Meetings List

If you work closely with someone in your work (or even in your life, like a spouse), you’ll notice there are always things that come up which need to be discussed. Before you can decide on or finalize the next task or action step, you need to get their input.

Based on the volume, you’ll benefit from setting up a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly meeting to go over things. Rather than shooting off emails or texts or interrupting each other while working, your best bet is to keep a document of things you need to talk about.

As a bonus, by collecting a list, you can quickly prioritize before meetings to make sure you work on the highest leverage items that need discussion. You NEVER want to talk about issues in the order you wrote them down. Since you won’t be able to everything, looking at your list in advance of the meeting allows you to organize for maximum impact.

Obviously if something is very time sensitive, it changes the equation.

A text, phone call, or in-person interruption may be appropriate here. But for anything that can wait a few days, it’s best to “batch” discussion items for dedicated discussion time, which allows for more uninterrupted work time in the interim for both parties.

Ongoing Projects

Any executive or entrepreneur will have certain responsibilities to “create” things.

In my case, it’s working on presentations, blog posts for the Mark Fisher Fitness blog, blog posts for Business for Unicorns, text for an MFF promotion, creating courses and products for BFU or MFF, etc.

A core function of my job is correctly prioritizing and working on on-going projects. To keep myself organized I keep a document of my ongoing projects so I can see what balls I have in the air. I can use this list to keep track of deadlines and create 30-60 minute work sessions that become To Do List tasks on my daily work assignments.

Based on your current workflow, you probably also have a number of projects you’re working on as well. A “project” is something that can’t be completed in a single 30-60 minute work session that comprises your day to day tasks. By seeing your projects written out, you have the opportunity to make sure no balls get dropped, and you can think critically about how to prioritize the different projects on your plate based on importance and deadlines.

Someday/ Maybe List

This list is brain-dumping at its finest.

This is where you keep track of all the random ideas for projects, initiatives, marketing ideas, customer service ideas, program ideas, and anything else your brain comes up with. It’s where you can keep track of all the things that don’t fit in any of the above buckets. These are ideas you’re not ready to take action on yet, but you want to get out of your brain.

The key with this list is it allows you to catalog items you’re purposefully choosing to not do right now.

You want to capture these items so your brain can rest and not nag you about it. And you can look it over once every one to two months and decide if and when an item should be escalated to another list (the To Do List for one off actions and tasks that require no more than 60 minutes, the Meeting Discussion List for items that need to be discussed, and the On-Going Project List for bigger projects that will require multiple work sessions).

A Brief Word On Not-To-Do Lists

Your life is nothings but a series of 3-15 minute tasks. Even your 60 minute tasks are simply four 15 minute blocks together. A project that requires 20 hours is simply 20 60 minute work sessions.

Our day can quickly fill up with lots of seemingly small tasks. Emails requiring a response. Toiletries to buy off Amazon. Responding to a Tweet. Converting a file from Power Point to PDF. Researching prices and then buying a plane flight.

If we’re not ruthless about prioritizing, delegating, and deleting our potential To Do’s, life can swallow us whole.

In Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, the author shows in a compelling (and horrifying) fashion how most people fail to achieve their potential BECAUSE of their success.

The more success you have, the more opportunities come your way. The more value you can add, the more people will want your time and attention. And the more tempted you’ll be to pursue the exciting shiny new opportunities, and bite off more than you can chew.

There’s even a name for our tendency to overestimate what we can actually accomplish by assuming our plans will go perfectly without any hiccups: “planning fallacy.”

Simply put, most people drown on their own success.

In the beginning of a career, one has to hustle for opportunities. You have to say “YES” a lot. However, there is a tipping point where “what got you here won’t get you there.”

After a certain amount of success…

Whoever says “No” the most, wins.

The essence of strategy is what you’re not going to do. The best information capture system in the world will be unsuccessful if you’re spinning your wheels with lots of low-leverage activity.

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If you’re interested in learning how to get more done with less stress, be sure to put your email address in the toolbar above so you’ll hear about future rounds of Business for Unicorn’s Time Ninja course.

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In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your experiences with To Do Lists and information capture systems. Have you used any of these systems? Any experience with other “buckets” of information capture? Leave a comment!

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